Japan develops rail guns as neighbors test hypersonic missiles

A prototype railgun manufactured by the Japan Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Agency is seen in this image provided by the agency.

TOKYO – The Japanese Ministry of Defense is investing considerable resources in research and development in rail guns, a sci-fi weapon so far that shoots projectiles very quickly, very far and at high rate using l electromagnetic energy rather than gunpowder.

Some 6.5 billion yen (roughly $ 56 million) has been allocated to the railgun project in the government’s initial budget proposal for fiscal year 2022. As China and North Korea develop hard-to-intercept hypersonic weapons, will Japan succeed in integrating this weapon into its air defenses?

“Our only hope is a prototype weapon called a railgun. It fires a steel projectile at Mach 7.” Shortly after these words are spoken, a rail cannon built on top of a U.S. military guided missile destroyer fires a hypersonic shell that slices through a giant robot trying to destroy one of the Egyptian pyramids. So goes one of the climax scenes from the sci-fi action movie “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen”.

With a railgun, an electroconductive projectile is charged between two teeth also of electroconductive material. A very strong electric current then feeds one rail, through the projectile or armature holding it, then back down to the other rail, creating a strong magnetic field which launches the bullet-shaped projectile out of the barrel at tremendous speeds.

The Department of Defense allocated 1 billion yen (about $ 8.64 million) for the technology in the supplementary budget for fiscal 2016 and built a prototype. The objective is a weapon capable of firing a projectile at 2000 meters per second or more, or approximately Mach 6 and above the 1700 m / s of the main gun of a tank. According to the Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Agency (ATLA), speeds of 2,297 m / s were recorded during tests.

The ministry is researching firearms because countries around Japan are developing hypersonic weapons. These travel at over five times the speed of sound, making them difficult to intercept and, according to observers, possibly impossible for Japanese missile defenses to shoot down.

The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, said in an interview with US media in October 2021 that China had, in the summer of the same year, tested a hypersonic weapon. In September 2021, Korea’s Central News Agency reported that North Korea had tested a Hwasong-8 hypersonic missile developed by the country’s Academy of National Defense Sciences. At the end of 2019, Russia began commissioning its Avangard hypersonic missiles.

According to ATLA, US research shows that railguns have a potential range of around 100 to 180 kilometers. The 46-centimeter main guns of Imperial Japanese Navy battleship Yamato had a maximum range of around 42 kilometers, meaning that a rail gun has roughly the same range as a missile. Sustained fire is also possible, and the weapon could be used against a multiple missile attack. It is expected to have applications in land, sea and air battles, and some see it as a military “game changer”.

But there are many obstacles to development. ATLA says the United States, the leader in gun research, has suspended work on the technology. It seems they decided that it didn’t offer much different effects from missiles and other technologies, and that the work didn’t justify the cost. A source close to the Japanese government said, “We cannot rely on the United States, which has turned to regular warheads. Japan will be at the forefront of development.

Railguns are also extremely power hungry, requiring 25 megawatts to fire. Where this energy comes from is a major problem. In addition, the high heat produced during the firing of the weapon poses maintenance problems, in particular the wear of the rails due to the repeated firing.

Beginning in fiscal 2022, the Defense Ministry will continue research into energy efficiency and high-speed fire technology, with the aim of starting weapon deployment as early as FY 2028. But some members of the ministry expressed concerns, including that they “I don’t know if it will work properly. Can it reliably hit targets moving at super-fast speeds?”

(Japanese original by Shu Hatakeyama, Department of Political News)

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